|Zuanich Point Park, on Bellingham Bay. Photo by Warren Miller.|
I lived in Palo Alto, California for a total of 32 years, with short intermissions in Berkeley and Sacramento. Around here, that’s what people want to know: where I’m from and how I happened to come to Bellingham, twenty miles shy of Canada on the coast of Washington State. The tone of these questions is not always friendly. Natives would prefer, I think, that Bellingham were an island in a nameless sea, like Never Never Land, rather than visible on maps, certainly not maps that Californians are allowed to consult. I regret to say there’s a good reason for that.
Housing used to be affordable here, until Californians started cashing out their equities and moving north, driving prices up for all. Oregon and Washington residents have never been enthusiastic about visitors from the overpopulated south. “Welcome Californians!” says the occasional billboard. “Enjoy yourselves, then go home.” And they become less enthusiastic with every passing year. A new condo complex goes up in Bellingham on what used to be forested land, and I overhear “Californians!” at the nearest coffee house.
Bellingham, like Palo Alto, sits on a bay, but our new, 100-year-old house is 100 feet above sea level instead of seven, as our house in Palo Alto was. We can’t see the water or the closest of the San Juan Islands from our windows—views cost money here as everywhere—but if we walk a couple of blocks, blue pops over the horizon. Coastal winters are long but not harsh, and summers are glorious. Mount Baker, visible out our back windows, is snow-capped year round.
On our walks, my dog Alice plants herself in front of houses—lots of them—with backyard chicken coops. I can hear the freight train down at the docks whistle late at night. The middle school a few blocks away, which caught on fire last year and is being rebuilt, still bears the motto, Waste Not Thy Hour. The owner of our independent bookstore chartered a bus to Gary Snyder’s reading in Seattle last year and poured wine for the passengers all the way home. (I can tell you that he didn’t spill a drop.) My writing group meets in the Unitarian Church. There’s a drop box at the grocery store for public library books. We can get anything we really need on foot or by bus. Bellingham is a real town. That's one answer to the question, why Bellingham?
When people ask me where I'm from, I disclose my state of origin in a stage whisper. Sometimes that’s enough to disarm. To the question, why Bellingham, I tell them that my brother moved here more than twenty years ago, and so now has my sister. We’re a family reuniting.
The man at the Department of Licensing wasn’t mollified. “So your brother told you about Bellingham, eh?” He slid a piece of scratch paper across the counter. “His full name, please. I’m afraid I’ll have to revoke his license.”
My brother is still driving.